Max the Knife


In 1918, the Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov conducted a famous experiment. He chose a close-up of the actor Mojukhin and intercut it with three clips: a bowl of soup on a table, a dead woman in a coffin, and a girl at play. After Kuleshov screened the film, the audience purportedly remarked how aptly Mojukhin had reacted to each situation. But, in truth, each shot of Mojukhin was identical—picked precisely for its blankness of expression. The Kuleshov effect, as it came to be known, explains how, when watching film, we automatically form narrative connections between disparate images.

It’s the Kuleshov effect that lends interest to Caden Manson’s play Flicker. An assemblage of slasher flick and romantic drama, and of theater and film, Flicker‘s assets lie in the leaps of logic and faith it forces us to take to put it all together. Neither narrative boasts great writing, and the cast executes the play and film with equal imprecision, but there’s a certain delight in discovering the unexpected concurrences, disjunctions, and slippages between the stories and forms.

With his company Big Art Group (no chutzpah there), director and cowriter Manson makes use of a technique he terms “Real-Time Film.” A rectangular bank of three screens separates the audience from the performers, obscuring the actors from the ribs down. As the live action plays out above the screens, three video cameras simultaneously project it onto the screens. Lit-up signs above the actors indicate the various locations: apartment, car, refuge, bar, house, and a creepy stretch of woods.

The play’s two narratives begin almost identically. Actors hold up title cards to each of the end cameras; the cards announce the terrible, terrible tragedy that befell a group of young friends one autumn. But the right title card speaks of three friends and an unfortunate afternoon, while the left’s mourns five friends and an ill-fated evening. From there, the stories diverge dramatically: A carful of party-bound kids fend off the advances of an ax-wielding psychopath, while an urban trio negotiate an acute love triangle.

With so few elements in common—the stories don’t even share actors—much of the fun for the viewer is in creating connections between them, assessing how well or ill the physical violence of the first story mirrors the psychological violence of the second. The rest of the enjoyment derives from the unabashed loudness, the rills of fake blood, the incessant wig changes, and the ingenuity that the fractured form demands: In order for the three screens to continuously project a hand outstretched to stab with a knife, three different actors must lend their arms to the proceedings. The low-tech special effects continue as strips of cloth double—surprisingly well—for vomit or entrails. These moments, when the disjunctions between stage and screen are revealed, hint at a certain promise and pathos for this odd form. Real-Time Film can expose the lies cameras tell, how an added sound or light or clever prop can entirely alter the reality of what we think we see. And the medium benefits from a breakneck immediacy that feels very contemporary.

But the form’s potential goes mostly unrealized, owing to deficiencies in acting and script. Writers Manson, Jemma Nelson, and Rebecca Sumner Burgos create tossed-off dialogue too vapid for consequence, but not vapid enough to masquerade as parody or commentary. Incredibly, almost none of the actors think to infuse any of it with subtext. Perhaps they are chosen, as Kuleshov chose his performer, for their lack of expression. Of the cast, only two members of the love triangle register noticeable performances: Justin Christopher as a landslide of emotional need and Vivian Bang as an egotist of the most unapologetic order. To their credit, the kids in the slasher portion do scream with gusto.

Manson is only one of the writers and does not perform; most of the show’s failings—and its successes—likely lie in his staging. He encourages his actors and design team to cultivate an insouciant style that joys in its fuckups. The actors move and speak with a learned sloppiness that can’t all be accidental. The sound arrives oddly synched, the lighting is barely adequate, and the costume design celebrates distressed clothing and ripped-up panty hose. (These last are worn over the actors’ faces and at first blush resemble nothing so much as a catastrophe with a tube of self-tanner.) The cameras don’t always capture what they aim to. There’s certainly an appeal in the informality and untutored energy of these elements—frankly, most of the play’s laughs derive from them. But stylistic eptitude doesn’t always connote stuffiness, and Manson might want to give it a whirl. He could start with dialogue that doesn’t so valorize the insipid and a cast willing to speak it with greater gravity. Formal potential aside, Flicker only casts a dim light. Perhaps at his next outing, with better actors and a more challenging script, Manson might create a piece it’s not quite so easy to hold a candle to.

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